Ella Nicholas had to choose. She could train for a place at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo – or she could come home to Cook Islands to pursuing her medical career.
Kayaking is closed to her heart. She began paddling at age 13 on the Wairoa River; she took up the sport because her older brother competed as a kayaker as it looked like fun.
In her whole life, her most memorable moment in representing the Cook Islands was hoisting the national flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2016.
So it should have been a tough call.
It wasn’t. The choice was easy: the canoe slalom sports career is on hold.
Cook Islands need doctors.
Nicholas paddled her first Olympic Games in London in 2012, representing Cook Islands. And she is working to find a balance between the sport and medicine, but for now she is focused on helping children here, as a paediatric surgeon.
Her 30-year-old brother Bryden, whom she looks up to, was first of the siblings to sign up for medical school. Ella followed in his footsteps, and then younger sister Jane, too.
Bryden will soon qualify as an orthopaedic surgeon, Ella as a paediatric surgeon, and Jane has set aside her medical practice to focus on sport at present.
That’s because not only are the three siblings all qualified doctors – but they’ve also all represented Cook Islands in kayaking.
Dr Ella Nicholas believes there is a lot of room in improving doctors pay in the Cook Islands, compared to New Zealand – but she says it’s not all about the money.
She loves medicine. And in fact, like a number of other expat doctors every year, she is not being paid for her stints working at the Rarotonga Hospital. This month, she is volunteering in the surgical department under Dr Deacon Teapa.
The 28-year-old Nicholas says she has been following concerns about the lack of doctors on the outer islands. She says working alone in the Pa Enua would be a very difficult job.
“I know there is a doctor in Aitutaki and some in other islands, and a lot of them don’t have doctors.
“It would be a demanding job being a doctor on an island, being so isolated, you could literally have serious medical problems coming in and being the only person responsible to help with that.”
It would be especially challenging when there were emergencies.
The health system is only going to improve if they get educated people with different types of learning and specialisations, who can contribute to the system.
“I think they are doing an amazing job here already, I am impressed with the hospital and doctors and the leadership team are working really hard,” she says.
“But there needs to be a continued growth so you need young people coming through who want to work on the island, the best people for that are those who grew up here and hopefully some would want to do it.”
Nicholas graduated from the University of Otago medical school and has been working as a doctor in New Zealand for more than three years.
She always wanted to return and work in Cook Islands, so when she managed to get some time off from the New Zealand medical world at Tauranga Hospital, she took the opportunity to come here.
She would love to come to Raro and work as a fulltime doctor but at the moment she wanted to specialise – and that means more training.
“The likelihood of coming back would be based on volunteer basis for now, a month or two each year rather than permanently be here, but I haven’t decided anything, I love it here and who knows.”
Nicholas has been volunteering in Rarotonga for three weeks now, and will spend another five weeks learning from the best doctors on the islands, as they share their expertise.
She says after volunteering here, she will start return to New Zealand in December to start her new job as a surgical registrar in Christchurch, alongside respected paediatric surgeon Kiki Maoate.
At the Vaine Rangatira awards in Auckland last month, Ella was recognised for her contribution to Cook Islands sports.
Her inspiration? It’s her mum Sue Clarke Nicholas, a business woman who has worked hard for her children.
And closest to her heart? It’s her dad, retired general practitioner Dr Robert Nicholas – and he is planning to return to Rarotonga, she says. “He always encourages us to work hard in school and always says it’s important to have an education.”
Ella, Bryden and Jane may have grown up in New Zealand, but would visit the Cook Islands more than once a year, spending time with their grandmother in Aitutaki.
She always advised them: “Once you get your degree, you got your ticket and you can do anything.”
It was what she learned at a child in Cook Islands that she says has been so important in shaping her today.
“I think the culture from the Cook Islands and those experience I have with my dad here are really special – being able to share the Cook Islands culture with him is inspiring.”
DO YOU WANT TO BE A DOCTOR?
Nicholas says medicine is a challenging, interesting and a rewarding career and if young people want to do it, they should try. “I know there will be a lot of support from doctors and others in the health profession in the Cook Islands.”
She says she is happy to give advice and happy to help young people who see medicine as a career.
ELLA’S HEALTH, OR OTHER’S HEALTH?
Nicholas represented the Cook Islands for 12 years internationally as slalom canoeist, finishing 18th in the K1 heats at the 2012 Olympics in London, and same again at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
This year she did some racing, mostly to support her sister who is aiming to qualify for Tokyo Olympics 2020.
“I really enjoyed it and have not lost all the technical skills, so I haven’t ruled out continuing to compete in the future,” she says. “It’s something I like to do but it’s just really hard to be undergoing a specialist doctor training and train full time for kayaking.”